It’s 6.45am. A cool breeze sweeps through the 40-acre cattle camp near the dried-up Mann river at Mhaswad in Satara district. The mercury reads 39°C. The camp is already a beehive of activity. Each villager here has his/her work cut out. Some are bathing the bullocks, cows and buffaloes, others are feeding them cut sugarcane or milking them. Many are sweeping the ground outside their makeshift shacks.
But everyone curses the breeze.
“It is our death knell,” complains Kushal Bhagwat, a volunteer at the sprawling camp. The breeze will drive away the little rain that Mhaswad usually gets around this time. “If it doesn’t rain anytime soon, we will not see rains till September,” explains another volunteer with the Mann Deshi Foundation, the women’s NGO that put up the camp and saved around 7,000 cattle.
Bhagwat’s shoulders slump under the crushing weight of inevitability. “If it doesn’t rain this year, we will definitely face a drought,” says a villager attending to his cattle. And if the rains put up a no-show, then the only crops of this region, the kharif, cannot be sown.
“We are here [the camp] for the long haul,” says Bhagwat, his voice betraying a sigh.
A home away from home
The camp has been the home of over 3,500 people from Mann taluka’s worst drought-hit villages — Varkut, Hingni, Kulkute, Virkarvadi and Manewadi — for over a month now.
JP Katyare, the tehsildar of Mann, says Mhaswad had received an average rainfall of 261.50mm last year. Mumbai’s annual average rainfall is 2,146 mm.
“For about 40km from here, animals get very little to no water,” says Bhamabai Dyaneshwar Mane, who had trekked 8km to reach the camp. “My animals had never eaten before while being tethered. These are bad days for my cheerful animals,” she says as her forehead creases. “I have 50 sheep back home. If I were to give my bullocks the scanty water that is available, what would be left for the sheep? I can’t sacrifice any animal. They are like my children.”
The water tankers arrive, and they are emptied into several water storage tanks and plastic containers. The camp is divided into several lanes and wards. A truck ferries water to the lanes. Fodder distribution is yet to start. Twice a week, cattle feed and oil cake are served.
Nine-year-old Akash Dilip Jheemal is running around, looking too frail for his age. He arrived at the camp from his village, Gangoti, on May 3 with his mother, and brought along with him five animals. His mother had to return home. “Who else will take over the cooking?” explains a woman working nearby.
One of Jheemal’s parents comes every third day to check up on him and the animals. When his mother arrives, she brings him enough food to last for two days. Jheemal is enjoying his time at the camp. Just as his enthusiasm begins to rub off on those nearby, his face darkens, “We came here because there was no fodder in my village,” and he runs off, leaving silence in his wake.
Jheemal isn’t the only child tending to cattle here. Mayur Dada Sokasne, 10, takes care of about 12 animals all by himself. Dada Thomre, 15, lugs around 40kg of sugarcane for his animals when the distribution begins.
Resources hard to come by
The camp is the beacon that has shown many a family breeding cattle a way out of the darkness. About 28,000 animals were delivered by hapless villagers to slaughterhouses in April and May before they heard of the camp at Mhaswad.
Chetna Gala Sinha, founder of the Mann Deshi Foundation and a Yale University scholar, recalls that when she put up a notice on the board of a local temple announcing the launch of the camp on April, she got 250 animals right away. “In eight days, that number rose to 3,600.” As of June 3, there were 5,831 cattle at the camp.
Villagers extol Chetna and her husband Vijay Sinha’s display of “courage” in starting such a camp. Vijay Sinha is a Congress councillor of the Mhaswad Nagar Parishad and a former Shetkari Sanghatna activist. The NGO had to buy three tankers to provide water — 3.5 lakh litres a day — to the camp. A buffalo can do with 40 litres a day, but a bullock drinks 60 litres every day. The NGO’s daily expenses in running the camp amount to Rs3.7 lakh. The state administration gives money only to buy fodder. While the NGO had spent Rs99 lakh till May 31, the government had released only Rs12 lakh till that day for fodder. Mann Deshi Foundation is yet to receive Rs61 lakh. The tractors supplying fodder are countless.
The Sinhas thank a Mumbai professional, S R Halbe, for helping to keep the camp running. While the Kamalnayan Bajaj Foundation, the Rahul Kumar Bajaj Charitable Trust and the Janakalyan Charitable Trust — all trusts in Mumbai — chipped in generously, politicians like the Congress’ Husain Dalwai are now opening up their fists.
Worth the struggle
But every time the Sinhas are demoralised, they think about Rajaram Mane and Nansaheb Dongre and know that it is worth the struggle.
Mane sold half his animals in the last three months, including some Jersey cows. He sold them two at a time to keep the others alive. A Jersey cow that he had bought for Rs55,000 had to be sold for Rs26,000.
Dongre’s village is cheek by jowl with the Rajwade talav.
“It is bone dry today. The government tankers bring only drinking water. That is why I am here [at the camp],” shrugs Dongre.